The origins of the missing man formation.
- By Daniel Ford
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 2 of 4)
In short, the Missing Man formation has become an American tradition--cliché, if you prefer. And like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and "okay," it has spread around the world. When World War II ace Colonel Lauri Pekuri died last year, Finnish air force F-18s flew the Missing Man at his funeral.
Curiously, for the first half of the history of flight, the now-ubiquitous formation was seldom seen. Oh, there was the occasional flyby: British squadrons on the Western Front in World War I sometimes overflew their airfields after combat, so the men on the ground could count the number of surviving aircraft, and King George V got a mass flyover at his funeral in 1935. Then there was Major General Oscar Westover, head of the U.S. Army Air Corps. When he was buried at Arlington in September 1938, no fewer than 50 fighters and bombers flew overhead, and the formation had a "blank file," or empty row, of half a dozen aircraft--almost, but not quite, a Missing Man.
The first approximation of today's Missing Man appears to have occurred in 1931, when the May 22 edition of the St. Paul, Minnesota Pioneer wrote about the funeral of Charles W. "Speed" Holman, operations manager of Northwest Airways. Reported the Pioneer: "During the services in the temple, a broken formation of four 109th Air Squadron planes kept vigil from above. As they droned hight they kept a gap in flight. The vacant place was for 'Speed.'"
By the end of the Korean War, the Missing Man had entered the inventory. In April 1954, Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg was buried at Arlington with "several departures from the prescribed Special Military Funeral," in the words of The Last Salute, an astonishingly detailed 1971 book written by B.C. Mossman and M.W. Stark on the subject of graveside honors. The traditional horse-drawn artillery caisson was missing. Instead, Vandenberg got "a flyover of jet aircraft with one plane missing from the formation."
Also in 1954, Captain Joseph McConnell Jr. was testing a modified North American F-86 Sabre at Edwards Air Force Base in California when he ran into trouble and was killed trying to save the airplane. This was in an era when Hollywood and the Pentagon were a team, and Warner Brothers immediately cranked out The McConnell Story, a film featuring Alan Ladd, June Allyson, a sonorous Air Force general, and not one but two Missing Man formations. The firs takes place wile the Korean War is hotting up in the summer of 1950. Ladd and Allyson are inspecting a homesite in Apple Valley, California, when suddenly a squadron of F-86s flies overhead in three flights of four. The leader of the second flight pulls up and away. Asks Allyson in her husky, housewifey voice: "Why is that plane leaving formation?"
Ladd: "You heard about the accident this morning?"
Ladd: "It's the flyby for Lieutenant Gordon. See that open slot? That's the position he used to fly. It's call the [pause for effect] Missing Man formation." The second occurrence is at Edwards, when the squadron leader comes over to tell Mrs. McConnell that her husband has bought the farm.